Tag Archives: Nobuyoshi Araki

Some semi-random thoughts as we enter December

Issei Suda Exhibition: magi no hira - fragments of calmLast week I managed to get myself down to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Syabi) and see the Issei Suda retrospective exhibition just before it closed. It may come as a surprise but I miss a lot of these major exhibitions at Syabi (and other museums/galleries), and I had basically already written off seeing this one. When I do see one of these exhibitions, more often than not it serves as an all too easy to forget reminder that it is worth the effort (but that won’t stop me from wondering if it is whenever the next one rolls around).

Suda has been on my mind recently, spurred on by this altogether rare and insightful piece on Suda and then later by my conversation with the author, Ross Tunney, who was in town recently specifcally to see the Suda retrospective. (If he could make a 12-hour round trip just to see the Suda exhibition, well then really I have no excuse.)

When I do make it down to Syabi I always try to avail myself of their excellent reference library, and this time was no different. I particularly wanted to look again at two Suda books I don’t own, 人間の記憶 (Human Memory, 1996) and 犬の鼻 (A Dog’s Nose, 1991) — particularly the latter as Suda’s color work is still by and large ignored even amongst all the Suda exhibits and books we’ve been treated to recently. Both of these are excellent but unfortunately not really affordable on the used market. It would be great if both of these could be re-issued so I could affordably buy them, or perhaps not….

. . .

Seiji Kurata's Flash-up, reprinted by Zen Foto GalleryAt the risk of biting the hand that sometimes feeds me, I’ve been thinking about the recent spate of re-issues such as the new Flash-up (Seiji Kurata), Suda’s Waga Tokyo 100 (both of those from Zen Foto), the reprint (or re-reprint) of Katsumi Watanabe’s Shinjuku Guntoden: 1965-1973, or the new facsimile editions of Daido Moriyama’s Another Country in New York, both of which are the latest in a string of re-issues from Akio Nagasawa Publishing they’ve done over the last couple of years. These are all worthy of once more seeing the light of the everyday, rather than languishing unseen and out of reach in the usually overpriced listings of AbeBooks, and most of them are very fine renditions indeed.

Nobuyoshi Araki's Banquet, published by Errata EditionsHowever — and I’ll admit right up front that I have no idea of the economics of putting these books out — do they all have to be so damn expensive? Speaking as a photo book lover, rather than a photo book store proprietor, I would much rather see more Errata Editions type of facsimile editions, which admirally accomplish several goals (of mine, not necessarily their’s or that of the publishers’ I mentioned above): allow people who have no access to the original to see the work; present the work as it was presented originally, but with better printing; provide context and perspective through contemporary essays; and make the books available to consumers at a very affordable price point. Japanese publishers are hardly the only guilty ones here it must be said. The German-based Only Photography has put out very nice — so people say, as I have never personally seen them — editions of work by Yutaka Takanashi, Suda, and Shomei Tomatsu. Nice and deserved, but not really priced at what sane people would call “affordable”.

. . .

From Someone's Wife, by Nobuyoshi ArakiFor better or worse, Nobuyoshi Araki’s work is ubiquitous enough that hundred-dollar reprints are not yet in abundance. I caught Araki’s “Someone’s Wife” exhibit the other day at Rat Hole Gallery. I went down there to pick up a book and probably would have given the show a miss otherwise, but I’m glad I got to see it. The subject of the series is hitozuma, which the gallery translates into the vaguely innocent-sounding “someone’s wife”, while the translation I’m more familiar with is the altogether more titillating “another man’s wife”. (If you’re after a more culturally accurate English equivalent, “MILF” is what you want — for those not familiar with that term, I recommend you search Google for it when you are not at work).

Araki has over the last 15 years produced quite a number of “Hitozuma” books (in the main series of this type of work, 人妻エロスor hitozuma eros, published by Futabasha, Araki released #17 this past March). They’re a bit slick but I quite like them. However, I only own one since to the casual eye of say, my wife, having more than one of them would be the equivalent of a teenager with mound of Penthouse magazines stuffed under his mattress.

The exhibit at Rat Hole features about 15 large black and white portraits of middle-aged women exposing their unclothed bodies in various degrees of nudity that we assume is the limit of what they’re comfortable with, each one daubed in brightly colored paint that Araki has often employed in recent years and here uses as a way to censor the images in the same way that his books of old featured black strips over women’s private parts.

Thus superficially the tone of the show, and that of the accompanying book, is different from the hitozuma eros books I mentioned before, and one may be forgiven for thinking that here Araki is trying on his “I want to make serious movies” Woody Allen hat. But ignoring the trappings of the large prints, black and white film, and a large, airy gallery space, the series produced the same feeling I get from much of Araki’s oeuvre, and what I suspect drives Araki much more than his legendary dirty old man-ness — a deep empathy for the people he photographs, and a loving embrace of the notion that the flawed and fragile represent the true pinnacle of beauty.

If you’re in Tokyo, the exhibition is on until January 19, 2014.

Leap Year Sale in Bookstore

Six books on sale for February 2012 The following titles are on sale for February:

Anatolia, by Hiroh Kikai ¥9,490 ¥8,490
Published in January, 2011, this book from Asakusa Portraits-famed Hiroh Kikai is the first ever substantial presentation of his considerable body of work from Turkey. It depicts Anatolia, but also points west and east, and was created during six visits (totaling 45 weeks) that Kikai made from 1994 through 2009. See this review at Microcord for more about the book.

Hana Dorobou, by Eikoh Hosoe ¥2,990 ¥2,490
Undergarment designer Yoko Kamoi (1925-1991) presented to Hosoe a series of her handmade dolls and told him, “Do with them what you want.” For Hosoe, they were more human than doll, and they seemed to take a life of their own, the scenes he eventually photographed them in seemingly situtations these dolls were getting themselves into — or so Hosoe felt, so strong was their human-like nature.

Hana Kinbaku, by Nobuyoshi Araki, ¥7,990 ¥5,990
Published in conjunction with his exhibition at Taka Ishii Gallery (Tokyo) in 2008, this 150-plus full color catalogue brings together two of Araki’s well-known obsessions, flowers and bondage scenes.

Kazuo Kitai in China, 1973, by Kazuo Kitai, ¥2,590 ¥1,990
Kitai, who was born in Anshan, Manchuria in 1944, returned to China in 1973 at the behest of the noted Japanese photographer Ihei Kimura, who assembled a group of photographers to travel the country for two weeks with him. The photos that Kitai took on this trip, which he intended to publish as a book but never did, are now collected in this special publication from Tokyo gallery Zen Foto Gallery.

Lime Works, by Naoya Hatakeyama, ¥4,290 ¥3,590
A much-needed reprint of Hatakeyama’s seminal 1996 Lime Works.

Cell, by Taiji Matsue, ¥4,990 ¥4,490
This book from 2008 by Taiji Matsue features tiny pieces (or “cells” if you will) of larger photos blown up many times over, rendering each photo both abstract and concrete at the same time.

Books Exotica — A Diary by Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki, A Diary -- CoverThe shelves here at Japan Exposures are literally crashing to the ground under the weight of all the various books we have. (Note to any budding photo book collectors — IKEA bookshelves will NOT cut it. Budget for quality bookshelving.) Given this situation, the Minister of Storage has started upping the volume on the perennial question (and I quote), “Do you really need all these &%#@-ing photo books?”, and has issued strict orders to clear some space that our books are occupying in the living room, the bedroom, the children’s room, the toilet, well you get the idea.

So, taking a page from Japan Exposures Exotica, where we sell different cameras and such that we pick up here and there, we’re going to start doing something similar with books. On a regular basis we’ll be putting up a book or two in the store. These books will be — as the saying goes — priced to sell. Think of them as “real books for real people at real prices” or something like that.

We’re starting off with one of Nobuyoshi Araki’s 450 (or whatever it’s up to now) photo books, published in 1995 and in very nice condition, the obi intact, etc.

“A” Diary (A日記), by Nobuyoshi Araki
Pub. by Libroport, 1995
ISBN: 484570997X
Original Cost: ¥4,944
Japan Exposures Price: ¥3,990  SOLD

Nobuyoshi Araki, A Nikki -- book spread

A diaristic record of 1995, in chronological order — or so you would think (more on that in a moment). Photos are in panoramic format, and all are taken with date imprinting. Most pages feature two photos on a page, so this book is jam-packed with candid photos from just about every day of the year. All photos are in color, and every page is full bleed. Robert Frank and Nan Goldin put in appearances, as does Araki himself. And many, many models. Many of those models are, surprise, naked, but this is not one of those books. There is a short essay — Japanese only — by someone with the last name of Ito at the back of the book.

The book was published in March of 1995, leading quickly to the WTF? realization that your looking at a record of 1995 that was published at the beginning of 1995. The essay in the back explains that from 1981 to 1995, using a camera that had a date imprinting back, Araki would play with the dial while shooting, so that pictures even on the same roll might have wildly varying dates imprinted on them. (In his first book to feature photos with date imprinting, Pseudo Diary (1980), Araki used dates like April 1 (April Fools Day) and August 6 and 9 (the days the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively) to highlight the pseudo-ness of the diary.)

According to the book’s essay, from the massive collection of date-imprinted photos, Araki and his editors assembled a seemingly chronological record of 1995, and that is what A Diary is. To be perfectly honest, it’s a great story but we’re not buying it. It has an apocryphal — or April Fools — ring to it. Was there a panoramic camera with date imprinting in the early 80’s?. We think it’s more likely the book was shot in 1994 — after all, that’s when Goldin was in Japan working on Tokyo Love, Spring Fever 1994 with Araki — with the concept already decided upon.

This is not a much sought after or rare Araki, as far as we know, so no need to rush to the Buy Now button just for collecting’s sake. And if you are more into the not-safe-for-work Araki, you may be disappointed. Nevertheless, we like it because it seems to have the right balance of “take a picture of anything that moves” and Sentimental Journey intimacy. We’re selling it because it’s chunky and stylistically overlaps other Araki books we have.

Some surface scratches and wear to obi and dust jacket, but very minimal.

Haven’t searched this one on the web recently, but when I did I saw one copy for $80, and another for $350 (admittedly that one is signed, but still…).

Hardcover, with obi. 26cm x 19cm. 1st printing, 1st edition. 200 pages, approx. 375 color photos. Available here. SOLD

My Favorite Japanese Photobooks of 2009

Photo-eye recently posted their annual “Best Books” feature, with a whole host of photographers and photo people submitting their top 10 books of 2009. Naturally I was interested to see what Japanese books made the grade, but was rather disappointed that on the whole so few Japanese books were chosen. This is I’m sure due in large part to a lack of access to books published here (but hey, Japan Exposures is here to help!), but I do wonder if the paucity of Japanese choices means the general feeling is that 2009 was a poor year for photography books from Japan.

Ivan Vartanian‘s survey Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s shows up twice (Ed Templeton, Richard Gordon), which was both heartening and worrying — let’s hope that it’s not an indication that we need to harken back to those halcyon days to get our photobook fixes.

The other Japanese photography books that made the various lists:

  • The Joy of Portraits, by Keizo Kitajima (John Gossage, Lesley A. Martin) — If you’re interested in acquiring this 13-pound, 2-volume set for a reasonable price, please get in touch; or you could content yourself with the catalog from Kitajima’s Tokyo retrospective from last Fall.
  • Portraits of Silence, by Hisashi Shimizu (Daniel Espeset) — Glad to see this moving book recognized.
  • Cui Cui, by Rinka Kawauchi (Tricia Gabriel) — Mind you this book was published in 2005, but who’s counting 😉
  • Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe (Sara Terry) — a 1969 book, but since this was republished in a trade edition in 2009 we won’t complain.
  • Binran, by Masato Seto (Michael Wolf) — technically from 2008.

Like I said, not much love as far as Japanese photography books goes.

Here are my very subjective choices for favorite books published in Japan last year:

Citizens, by Jun AbeCitizens, by Jun Abe (published January 11, 2009) If it weren’t for the “1979 – 1983” subtitle that very subtly accompanies this work from Jun Abe, there would be very little to belie the fact that these photos are 25 – 30 years old. And aside from that information, there is nothing else by way of context — but who needs it? You only need this book, and the hope that the maligned genre of street photography doesn’t get trampled by privacy pushers and the “right to my own likeness” brigade.

“Magazine Work” set, by Daido Moriyama (September, 2009) Many Daido Moriyama publications in 2009 (by my count there were at least 10 new Moriyama books relased in 2009, which is getting into prolific Araki territory). Of them all, I think that the two volumes of magazine work from the sixties and seventies, Nippon Gekijo and Nani ka e no tabi are particularly worthy additions to the Moriyama canon and essential to understanding his development as an artist. Honorable Moriyama mention for Northern, in some ways the most un-Moriyama book since the 2005 Takuno.

Tokyo Zenritsusengan, by Nobuyoshi Araki (October, 2009) 2009 was a very lean book year by Nobuyoshi Araki’s normal assembly line standards, and this book published toward the end of 2009 told us why — Araki was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 2008, which understandably limited his creative output. Maybe it’s the backstory working its magic, but this book for me feels more heartfelt and intimate than an Araki book has felt in some time. Bonus points for the slightly unconventional binding.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto “Multi-Exposure” (exhibition catalog, May, 2009) Nothing better than to visit a small, out of the way exhibition at some outlying university campus of one of your favorite photographers and find that they have accompanied said exhibition with a lovingly produced catalog that presents the work in a unique way and features contextual essays about said favorite photographer and said exhibition in English. This catalog of Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s multiple exposure collages produced by Musashino was such a catalog.

Tokyo Y-Junctions, by Tadanori Yokoo (published October, 2009) When I came across famed graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo’s book of paintings Y-Junction (2006), which take as their subject the Y-shaped intersections of Tokyo, I found myself fascinated by the serial nature of the work, and how photographic the project felt — helped in part by Yokoo’s desision to pair each intersection painting with a collage of photo studies he had made of the same intersection. So it was curious to see that Yokoo decided to make a separate project of these intersections, but this time consisting only of photographs — surely overkill, no?. But the resulting mix of part “Tokyo Nobody” Masataka Nakano, Becher-like typology, and ephemera-collecting Kyoichi Tsusuki is really a quite wonderful portrait of vernacular Tokyo.

Shomei Tomatsu: Hues and Textures of Nagasaki (exhibition catalog, October, 2009) Unfortunately it seems a very long time since we were treated to a new Shomei Tomatsu book, and so one must content oneself with the Skin of the Nation book of a few years ago, or the omnibus-like catalogs that have accompanied various Tomatsu retrospectives in Japan over the past few years. This catalog from the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum is everything you’d expect from a museum catalog — which basically means it does the job. But no matter. Any chance to catch up with what Japan’s greatest living photographer (IMHO, of course) has been doing in the “noughties” is one worth grabbing, and with over 309 color photos collected, it’s impossible to be disappointed, not the least because it proves that the near 80-year old Tomatsu is still at the top of his game.

Blue Period 1973-1979, by Akiyoshi Taniguchi (April, 2009) There seem to have been a lot of books published last year of work done in the past, but of those I’m not sure there were any that featured photographs taken by an artist when they were in their teens, besides this one. Akiyoshi Taniguchi — who later studied photography under Leo Rubinfien before becoming a Buddhist priest — shows that while he may have been a teenager, the photos he took evidenced a mature outlook and calm reflectiveness that no doubt have served him well in his current career.

Hana Dorobou, by Eikoh Hosoe (November, 2009) This lovely book by one of Japanese photography’s undisputed masters resurrected a project from the mid-60s that even Eikoh Hosoe himself had forgotten about. Hosoe took some dolls hand made by a famous lingerie designer, put them in decidedly un-doll-like situations, creating a book that can be enjoyed by parents and children alike — if the parent is not averse to dealing with the frank questions that surely will result. Beautifully printed too.

Honorable mentions to the following: Gyahtei, by Manabu Yamanaka; Faraway Eyes, by Jiro Nomura; Hong Kong Reminiscence 1958, by Shigeichi Nagano; and Banta, by Osamu James Nakagawa.

What were some of the 2009 books from Japan that Japan Exposures readers enjoyed?

Provoke: Interview with SFMOMA’s Lisa Sutcliffe

Provoke magazine cover
Provoke magazine cover
Over the last decade the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has established itself as one of the best American museums to see Japanese photography. Senior curator of photography Sandra Philips curated the first North American retrospectives for Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. Continuing this focus, assistant curator Lisa Sutcliffe has two new exhibits at the museum, “The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography” and Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea.” “Provoke” offers a concise introduction to the generation of photographers that Tomatsu and Moriyama were a part of, while “Photography Now” shows how Japanese photography has become even more diverse in the last decade. Both exhibits run through December 20th.

Provoke is the magazine most often associated with the generation of photographers working in the 1960s and 1970s – even those that did not actually publish in the magazine. It is an example of a small, short-lived, but legendary publications, whose influence is still felt. Early editions had print runs of just 1,000. In 2001 Steidl published “Japanese Box“, featuring reprints of the magazine, but with a price of $2,000. More recently, a flickr tribute group named after the magazine has collected 4,000 images in the Provoke-style. The images are by photographers from around the world, many of whom have never seen the original publication.

Flickr provoke group
Flickr provoke group

When Americans picture Japan during its economic boom of the 1960s, it usually involves the optimistic marketing images from Datsun, Olympus and Sony. In stark contrast, these photographs with their are-bure-bokeh style refute the vision of a unified land made up of smoothly-functioning corporations and their employees. We see Tomatsu’s photographs of the Shinjuku riots, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s voyeuristic expeditions in Tokyo’s public parks and Hosoe’s well-known photograph of Yukio Mishima wrapped in a garden hose.

The “Provoke Era” exhibit is not large, with less than 100 photographs all from the SFMOMA’s collection, yet it manages to select a handful of works from each photographer. There are many well-known works, but also photographs only found in out-of-print books. The exhibit traces changes in style from the mid-1940’s, through the late 1970s and even the 1990s, using the 1995 Kobe earthquake to mark the end of the post-war era and the exhibit.

One of the many things this exhibit does well is give a sense of the art of the photo book, something that is still a challenge for museum exhibits. “The Provoke Era” acknowledges the importance of books with with wall text and vitrines that display books (and magazines) in every gallery. Many of the prints on the wall have a work print quality, which they often were, with the book or magazine displayed in the vitrine being the end goal. There are exceptions, the most notable is “La Nuit” (1968), a series of photogravures by Provoke’s founding editor Takuma Nakahira. At this size and resolution, the are-bure-bokeh feels like it is being used precisely, with a specific intention.

Japan Exposures asked curator Lisa Sutcliffe a few questions about the exhibits.

Interview and review by Wayne Bremser for Japan Exposures

Japan Exposures: Many photographs in this exhibit respond to the detonation of nuclear bombs over civilian populations in Japan. Shomei Tomatsu carefully document the immediate aftermath, the burned objects and scarred human flesh. What influence did this event have in the work of the photographers that never directly confronted the subject?

Lisa Suttcliffe: The bomb was the single-most influential event on postwar Japanese society. Many of these photographers were children during the war and grew up in the tumultuous postwar atmosphere. Japanese national identity was deeply affected by the bomb and the defeat in the war. Some photographers made work that referenced the bomb symbolically – for example, Kikuji Kawada made photographs of veterans and relics of the war that created a memorial. These visual fragments represent the multiple layers of memory and history. The work of later photographers from Provoke, such as Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, reflects the incendiary political atmosphere. Their dark urban scenes are punctuated by bright flashes of light that indirectly reference the immediacy and violence of the bomb.

ukase, Masahisa, Kanazawa, from the series The Solitude of Ravens, 1977
Masahisa Fukase, Kanazawa, from the series The Solitude of Ravens, 1977

JE: Moriyama, Araki, (and thanks in part to the SFMOMA exhibit) Tomatsu are now well-known in the US. Is there a photographer in the exhibit that you think deserves greater recognition?

LS: All of them! The whole generation of postwar photographers made interesting and revolutionary work that is enhanced by seeing them together. If I had to pick one it would be Masahisa Fukase, whose varied body of work is deeply haunting, melancholic, and beautiful. His best known work comes from Karasu (Ravens), published in 1986. In this series he travels throughout Japan making photographs that reveal his dark psychological mood after he was estranged from his wife. Our exhibition also offers a good chance to see rare photogravures made by Takuma Nakahira from his series “La nuit.” The richly dark prints are a dramatic, and unsettling examination of urban street culture. (And they are really stunning to see together at this size).

Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s.

JE: While these photographers have different subject matter and styles, frequent book publishing was common in the group. You’ve included many books from the period, displayed in vitrines. Aperture’s recently released volume, Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70s is a good companion to the exhibit. Why was the photo book a primary medium for so many Japanese photographers? How do you think creating collections of work rapidly, publishing and then moving to the next book, shaped the work of these artists?

LS: You’re absolutely right. The Aperture volume is a fantastic reference for these revolutionary and prolific books. I love how it shows multiple page spreads from the selected books. As a country that popularized the woodblock print the print medium of books and magazines was a natural outlet. They’re really more like art objects than books. Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead they published their work in books and magazines. The book as object was a vital aspect of this culture and the photographers had this in mind as they produced and sequenced their work. Moriyama and Nakahira sought to emphasize the format of the book and that certainly would have affected their artistic choices.  Each picture is part of a whole series and they function together. There is less insistence on the single famous image.

In addition, Moriyama and others embraced Warhol’s philosophy of the consumer culture driven nature of photography. The concept of the photograph as a “copy” was an important part of their philosophy.  Both Moriyama and Araki made books on Xerox machines. The fine art print was not the preferred end product for them. I had to show the books and it was a shame I couldn’t show more than one page from each. This is one of the most important aspects to the exhibition that I hope people understand.

Hosoe, Eikoh, Man and Woman #6, 1960
Eikoh Hosoe, Man and Woman #6, 1960

JE: You’ve included many photographs of women by this group of male photographers, such as Hosoe’s “Man + Woman 6” and the four photographs from Moriyama’s “Hotel, Shiyuba.” How is the era’s view of women reflected in their photographs?  How has the view and role of women in photography changed between the Provoke era and work seen in “Photography Now”?

LS: I’m so glad you picked up on this. There are actually no female photographers in the entire Provoke exhibition. (There were a few female artists at this time, but they are not in the show). The attitude toward women reflects a “macho” point of view – women are portrayed as sexual objects, objects of desire, and are often seen engaging in the act of sexual intercourse with the photographer. It was a boys club – male artists, publishers, etc. Obviously, it is much different now. There are so many female photographers working in Japan and many of them are represented in Photography Now. The attitude toward women has changed as well, as it has throughout the world. I wanted to highlight this shifting attitude because it is reflected in the work.

Taishi Hirokawa - Shikoku Electric Power Co, Ikata 1991
Taishi Hirokawa - Shikoku Electric Power Co, Ikata 1991

JE: In the first gallery of Japanese photographs in “Photography Now” you offer some interesting comparisons. Younger photographers have a different photographic approach, while the Provoke photographers have changed their styles. A wonderful comparison is between Miyako Ishiuchi’s photos of her mother’s burn scars (not from the nuclear bomb) with Tomatsu’s. What are the major changes you are trying to illustrate with the selection in the Japanese gallery of the “Photography Now” exhibit?

LS: There is a very stark contrast between the postwar work and the contemporary gallery. The major change is that there are many varied aesthetic styles (color!), voices and themes. Many of the photographers working during the Provoke Era were united by a grainy, blurry, black and white graphic style and an urge to create a new visual language that challenged photographic conventions. The more recent work reveals artists working in diverse methods including color, black and white, and large format, and dealing with various issues such as the changing urban landscape, cultural identity and appropriation and poetic domestic daily details. There are also quite a few women, who nearly dominate the show. The work is driven toward a more personal vision. Rinko Kawauchi makes pictures of very poetic domestic moments. Miyako Ishiuchi carefully examines her mother, contrasting the texture of her scarred skin with the lacy undergarments which still hold her shape after her mother’s death. It is a no longer the desire to create a national memorial, but a personal one.

Wayne BremserWayne Bremser is a web designer and photographer based in San Francisco.

Interview with Ivan Vartanian

Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70sIvan Vartanian is an author, editor, and book producer who has been based in Tokyo since 1997. Later this month, two publications will get added to a growing list of books he has been involved with: Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s and Yasuzo Nojima: Modern Photography. Ivan has also written, co-authored, and edited numerous illustrated books on art, photography, and design, including Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers and Style Deficit Disorder: Harajuku Street Style – Tokyo. His company is Goliga Books. I recently sat down with Ivan in Harajuku to talk about his latest books and ask him about his other publications over the last few years.

Interview by Tyler Ensrude for Japan Exposures.

Japan Exposures: So where are you from originally? Where did your interest in photography come from and are you a photographer yourself?

Ivan Vartanian: Well, I grew up in Queens, New York. I have no formal education in photography, actually. I have a B.A. in biochemistry from New York University. But after I graduated I got a job interning at the Aperture Foundation (New York) and was eventually kept on as an assistant editor in 1997. Then after a year or so, a Japanese publisher, Korinsha Press (Kyoto), co-published Michiko Kon: Still Lifes with Aperture and I was basically the Aperture side liaison for that project. Through that I got to know Korinsha and they eventually offered me a job to come to Tokyo. And, no, I am not a photographer and I only just recently purchased my first camera – a point-and-shoot pocket camera.

JE: This job offer sparked your interest in Japanese photography, I’m guessing?

IV: The main reason why Aperture did that co-publication together was because I was interested in Japanese photography. I worked here in Tokyo as a book editor at their international desk until about 1999. Since I was the only foreigner at Korinsha, I was responsible for all their foreign clients, publications, and distribution. This included selling co-editions to other international publishers. That put me in this bizarre position of creating book projects and then also trying to place them with foreign publishers. I went from being an editor to also serving as the salesperson for my own projects.

No, I am not a photographer and I only just recently purchased my first camera – a point-and-shoot pocket camera.”

JE: Wow, that’s a pretty intense position to take on right away in foreign country.

IV: Yeah, I was totally clueless and terrified the entire time. It took about ten months for the ringing in my ears to stop. On top of which, my Japanese was pretty bad when I first started. Just when I was getting settled, Korinsha went bankrupt in 1999 and I was left in the position of having created book projects for which I had sold publications rights to foreign publishers. After the bankruptcy, the clients to whom I had sold rights suggested I package the books for them myself. That meant completing the production of the book—printing, binding, and delivery—and paying everyone myself. So that’s how I started this whole book packaging, entrepreneurial thing.

My involvement in photography, of course, started with Aperture and at Korinsha they were both publishing a lot of fine art, including Japanese photographers. So that gave me some entrée into that world.

JE: What were some of your major publications after leaving Korinsha?

IV: With Japanese photography, the first book that I made on my own was Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers (Aperture, 2005). I anthologized and translated writings by Japanese photographers. I made that book because, while at Korinsha, the photographers we were working with would submit lengthy texts as accompanying elements to their photography. Plus, Heibonsha—just at that time—was publishing the multi-volume compendium of writings by Nobuyoshi Araki. I noticed there were numerous text-only books by Japanese photographers out in the market. It was really remarkable to me that they were writing so much because at Aperture even to get a list of captions from a photographer was like pulling teeth. Nobody seemed to want to write anything, or to commit to putting any words on paper, I should say. Eugene Richards was a huge exception.

I became very curious as to what these photographers were writing about so profusely. I soon came to realize that what these photographers were writing was quite integral to their photography as a whole; it was part of the project and the process of photography. Words and images were quite closely linked in Japanese photography. This was also in part due to how these photographs were being reproduced; magazines, newspapers, books, to be specific. On the printed page, a photograph could be buried in a sea of words. We see this from a lot of post war photographers such as Ihei Kimura or Ken Domon.

JE: Kind of like a photojournalist in a way…

IV: Yeah, so these photographers, by our standards, were, yes, basically reporters, covering a story. They were producing their own shoots and providing a story. That is, the information that is provided by the photographs. This was also true with some French photographers a bit earlier, but it was quite prevalent in Japan. The writing varied from reportage to historical/personal history. Or it was a meditation about the work itself. More often than not, photographers up until the last generation were quite adept at writing and wrote extensively.

So that’s the main reason I wanted to make Setting Sun, I wanted to make more sense out of these texts. After translation, it became apparent that viewing Japanese photography as isolated images was tantamount to stripping bare the project and looking only at one aspect of the photography. This is particularly true of photobooks. In creating Setting Sun, I was trying to provide western readers a means to have some sense that the image functions in a larger body.

Photos (c) 2009 Nobuyoshi Araki
Ivan Vartanian. Photos (c) 2009 Nobuyoshi Araki

JE: Setting Sun has a photograph by Araki on the front cover. What of his writings were included in the book?

IV: The book does include some of Araki’s essays, talking about how he photographs, why he photographs, what he photographs, the effects of the death of his mother, his father. Apart from essays such as this, the nature of the other texts included are quiet varied. One short text is a meditation on a text by the poet Basho. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s text discusses time. Daido Moriyama’s text is the story on how he produced one of his early series about hitchhiking. The photograph in Japan doesn’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from other elements. Context, as provided by texts or the medium by which the image is distributed, is integral.

JE: I noticed on your site that you have done more than just photography books. Some design-related books, and other forms of art. Tell me a little bit about that.

IV: I’m very interested in other genres apart from photography. Especially books on architecture and even books on science, but these are subjects and projects that take a little longer for me to develop since those fields aren’t my specialty, but I hope to make more books in these areas in the future. I’ve always been interested in all visual arts…performing arts too. So the advantage I’ve had by working for myself with book packaging is that I’ve been able to do any book that I want. If I decide to do a photography book, I’ll find a publisher who has a strong sales presence in photography. Or if I want to do a design book, I’ll find a publisher with an established design reputation.

I really like to focus on art on paper when it comes to writing books, so for design, almost anything goes. But for photography, I’ve mainly only been interested in Japanese photography. And there is no better source for books on photography than here in Japan. This really became most apparent to me after making Setting Sun. The photobook, itself, has such a big place in Japanese photography….

JE: We’ll talk more about that in a moment. But first, I’m really interested in your book on Yasuzo Nojima. Tell me a little bit more about that before we jump into Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s… So is the Nojima book currently out now?

IV: Nojima reached the publisher warehouses last week, and it was previously only available for sale in at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, since they had an exhibition of his photographs in their permanent collection.

JE: Does Nojima have any published books of his own? I don’t think I’m aware of any.

IV: Nojima did not have a monograph that he edited on his own. There is one publication that came out posthumously that was made by a circle of friends and colleagues. It was more of a remembrance. There was one exhibition catalogue that came out about ten years ago from the museum in Kyoto after they received the trove of his vintage prints. Even though Nojima never made his own photobook he did publish a periodical called Koga. It was a magazine devoted to new modern photography. He was the publisher and benefactor of this project but it was only a short-term enterprise. Other than that, that’s it, in terms of book publication. So essentially, this book that I made is his first monograph. What’s more, it’s the first time the tones of the original prints have been faithfully reproduced. Nojima used a variety of printing techniques, each of which had its own tone.

I try to avoid bookstores actually. As someone who makes books I can’t walk into a bookstore and not get overwhelmed by all the great ideas I wish I had made myself. ”

JE: Is this the main reason you chose to make a book of Nojima’s photography?

IV: Yes — and I love the work. It’s really beautiful. He’s almost totally unknown. I thought I could bring something to the conversation of contemporary photography by showcasing this particular body of pre-war work. He was an amateur photographer, a lot of photographers from that area were amateur photographers. This was also interesting to me. So I wanted to do the Nojima project for this reason, instead of doing a book on a body of work by an established photographer who had made a career of it.

Nojima was a wealthy man and did photography simply as a hobby. Once in a while he had an exhibition, but nothing really that would define him as a photographer. So what that means is that his work is kind of all over the place. But he was photographing for quite a while, so over time, his printing techniques changed, his cameras changed, the models changed…even though there are only 250 artifacts remaining of his work, it’s quite spread out. So I basically wanted to try to bring it together in this book.

JE: Most of his work is located in Kyoto?

IV: Almost all of his vintage prints are in Kyoto, there is a trove of archival material at the Shoto Bijutsukan in Tokyo which is where there will be a show opening from late-September. There’s a print here, a print there, but, yes, it’s mostly concentrated in Kyoto.

JE: So tell me a little bit about Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s. You listed some of the photographers included in the book on your site. Did you work directly with any of these photographers? Are there any direct contributions or is it all biographical studies into the specific books that you chose?

IV: I did talk directly with several of the photographers. I worked a lot with Eikoh Hosoe, Miyako Ishiuchi, Daido Moriyama. The book has a long interview with Moriyama, actually.

The best help I got was through my co-author, Ryuichi Kaneko, who is a senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Photography here in Ebisu. He is the authority on Japanese photobooks. This is mainly because he’s been collecting this material for 40 years, he personally knows all the photographers and also works with them directly as a curator. He’s always attending their exhibition openings. He also often receives photobooks directly from the photographers. On top of this, he holds the credentials of a scholar in the field. So, what I couldn’t get through the interviews and meeting with the photographers directly, I relied on him for decades of personal involvement and expertise on the material.

There were times that I’d be sitting with him and discussing some of the books, and I thought I was being so insightful, really getting at something essential and then Kaneko-sensei would say something like “You’re way over-thinking it.” He’s been an amazing influence on me.

JE: [Looking through a proof copy of the book] And are these books in any particular order?

IV: Yes, they are pretty much in chronological order. We typically chose one book (from a certain photographer), but sometimes two. The reason why I decided to focus on one book is because it’s not a catalogue. I wanted to make a book that was showing readers how to read a Japanese photobook. And that’s one of the major differences between this book, and what Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s book did, which was hugely important in establishing the photobook as a viable genre and is an excellent source for some otherwise inaccessible rare books. Here and there you see some serious interests about Japanese photobooks happening, like in that book (The Photobook: A History, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), and it’s growing. But rather than show 200, 300, or 400 books, I really wanted to slow it down and through looking and various types of photobooks—the series-driven book, the memoir, the document, the meditation on form, the nudie book, etc. I wanted to give the readers a guideline for how to work with the object itself, what elements to look for and how to synthesize a comprehensive reading of the photobook. It’s more fun when you can appreciate all the details.

Japanese photography is the photobook. Communicating that simple idea, to even a Japanese audience, is the main homework of this project. You’d be amazed how revolutionary that idea is to people in the West.”

JE: Martin Parr is a major collector of photobooks. Are you as well? I would assume you have a few nice Japanese photobooks?

IV: Yes, Parr certainly is a collector. But, no, I’m not one. I try to avoid bookstores actually. As someone who makes books I can’t walk into a bookstore and not get overwhelmed by all the great ideas I wish I had made myself.

JE: So, from the eyes of a novice in the Japanese photobook world, how should we look at a Japanese photobook? Is there something we should be looking for? What should we be thinking about while reading your book?

IV: Well, after you’ve read through the text that I’ve written, it shows what aspects you should be paying attention to, what you should be considering while looking at a Japanese photobook. There is a lot of wishy-washy writing about Japanese photography, but there is so much to be said and so much to be understood.

So, apart from helping the reader learn how to understand Japanese photography books, I want them to know how essential it is to Japanese photography. It’s very different from western photography, which has this idea that photographs must exist as a print. Japanese photography, in its ultimate form, is the photobook. Communicating that simple idea, to even a Japanese audience, is the main homework of this project. And you’d be amazed how revolutionary that idea is to people who are well versed in photography in the West.

Another way of saying it is that… [points to the book proof ] … this is a facsimile, this book is a facsimile of that work. So the books included in this book are not facsimiles, these are originals. That one subtle shift in the way we look at the book is so important.

It’s like an edition in and of itself; the book becomes an original print. No one image is more important than the other and in the photographer’s eyes, the prints themselves, which are going to make the book, are useless. They have no value other than the reproduction at the printing plant. So the photographs as a collection don’t exist beyond the book. This can be true of non-Japanese photobooks as well but it’s taken to an extreme with Japanese photobooks.

JE: So you’re saying, as far as Japanese photography goes, we need to put more emphasis on the book and stop worrying so much about the prints? How about modern day exhibitions of old photographers? Being that galleries and museums have gotten better, has that changed anything?

IV: Even if you have an exhibition of the work, the photographer takes the prints and warps them or blows them up or crop them; they’ll change the contrast; they’ll mount them/not mount them, so that the work that is shown on the wall almost bares no resemblance to the work as it appears in the book. And, also, photographers go through such a process with the design and the printing that the printed (book) image is very different from the photographic print. It still doesn’t convey the feeling from the book.

JE: Yes, with your mention of “the process” that goes into design, I can’t help but imagine the books of Kiyoshi Suzuki. Would you say that after John Szarkowski opened the doors to the rest of the world with his exhibition in New York in the mid 70s of Japanese photographers, that this changed a westerner’s view about Japanese photographers and the photobook as well?

IV: Yes, Szarkowski did that exhibition with Camera Mainichi’s Shoji Yamagishi. He was a massively influential editor. But he did have reservations about showing Japanese photography out of context, like as a single image, because when you isolate an image from its larger collective, it loses meaning to a great extent. Every photo is like an artifact. They all support each other. It’s almost unfair to ask a Japanese photographer from that era to isolate one print. Whereas in the west, generally speaking, there is a predominance of the single image.

JE: Right, like a Robert Capa or a Dorothea Lange style photographer, who had linked projects, but were photographers who were typically known for a random handful of amazing stuff…

IV: Yes, it’s basically a “decisive moment” type photographer.

JE: Well, this book looks really great. Is there an official date this comes out? I noticed it’s been pushed back a few times.

IV: It took us years to complete this book. But I am happy to say the book arrives in New York on September 18th, so sometime around the end of September. [As of this writing, it looks like the book has been delayed again until November. — Ed.] There are three different editions—English, Japanese and French. The French edition will be published in October and the Japanese edition in October as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to it.

You can read an early review of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s at 5B4. At Vartanian’s Goliga Books site you can read what others are saying (scroll down), see what Daido Moriyama thinks of the book (in Japanese), and see a short video preview of the book.

Tyler EnsrudeTyler Ensrude is a contributing photographer and writer from the U.S. currently residing in Tokyo.

His work can be seen at www.tylerensrude.com and www.tylerensrude.blogspot.com.

Araki’s latest work born of his fight with cancer

Nobuyoshi Araki: Tokyo Zenritsusengan

I had heard earlier this year that Nobuyoshi Araki was not in good health, and the recent lack of Araki news and new photobooks from the man who has been so prolific up to now seemed to bear that out. Now, on the occasion of his new photobook, Tokyo Zenritsusengan, Araki has revealed to the public at large what only his close friends and associates knew — that he was fighting a battle with prostate cancer.

Diagnosed and successfully operated on in the summer of 2008 , Araki took his plight in typical Araki style, seeing it as a rare opportunity to bring his camera along with him to the hospital bed. It is well-known that Araki lost his wife Yoko to ovarian cancer in 1990, something he documented in the work Winter Journey. But this time it was Araki who was the patient. The result is the just-released photobook Tokyo Zenritsusengan (zenritsusen gan is Japanese for prostate cancer), published by Wides.

Araki used his chance to take photos of the nurses attending him, including the rookie nurse who had to shave his pubic hair, revealed Araki in a recent interview. (She posed while clutching the shaved hair in her hand.) There are also Araki self-portraits of himself wearing an oxygen mask after the surgery was done. While awaiting release from the hospital, Araki would take walks around Tokyo’s Ochanomizu area where the hospital was located, and these snapshots are included in the book as well.

And of course it wouldn’t be an Araki book without some nudes, and these are quite plentiful owing to the fact that he continues to be inundated with requests from women who want to model for him. Says Araki, “Not being able to get a hard-on anymore makes me more passionate. Just joking.”

Araki — who continues to undergo blood tests every two months to monitor his health condition — will also publish an “experimental” photobook at the end of the year with the ironic title “Posthumous Work: Empty 2”.

Tokyo Zenritsusengan is available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.